Israel’s newest maritime archaeological discovery is a ship dating back to the 7th century AD, that may shed light on the evolution of ship building techniques of the time.
By Uri Shapira
Twenty archaeologists and volunteers flocked to Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael last week, eager to explore and excavate Israel’s newest maritime archaeological discovery- an ancient ship dating back to 7th century AD.
Like in many discoveries from the sea, this one, located about 35 kilometers (22 miles) south of the port city of Haifa, came by accident.
Excavator Natan Helfman told i24news about the day he and a friend discovered the ship.
“We went out to a morning dive… and we had a great dive, and as we started coming back Yossi started pulling on my flipper and there was something beautiful in front of us.”
“We contacted the Antiquities Authority and they said ‘that is great, but keep it quiet’,” Helfman continued.
“We waited and waited, nothing happened, eventually I started my Masters Degree in Underwater Archaeology, and during a random discussion with a professor I couldn’t hold it in any longer.”
Israel is rich in archaeological treasures, found both on land and at sea. Last month, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced the discovery of a spectacular trove of cargo from a 1,600 year old merchant shipwreck was discovered by divers in the ancient harbor of Caesarea, the largest such find in the past thirty years.
But this new ship did not carry treasure of the gold and sculptural variety. Rather, its significance is rooted in the time period from which it comes- – When early Islam began to emerge in the region during the Byzantine era.
Debra Cvikel of the Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies at the University of Haifa, who is in charge of the excavation, thinks the ship may shed light on the evolution of ship building techniques.
“At first ships were constructed hull first, and then all the other internal elements were inserted,” Cvikel explains.
“Then after the first millennium, the skeleton was constructed first and then the hull planks around it. So, with this ship we are in a transition period.”
The group arrived at the site early in the morning, with a variety of instruments to aid in the excavation. The site is located at a depth of about 2 meters, where the divers are met with the challenge of shifting sediment from the moving tide and currents.
“We have had about five people underwater consistently since 7 am. Always, there is someone in the water using the dragger, which is like a vacuum cleaner which helps to excavate, moving sand from one area to another.” said Haifa University PhD student Maayan Cohen. “It’s a pretty big operation,”
A little over 30 years ago, in the same location, one of the most important maritime archaeology discoveries was made. A 2,500 year old ship was uncovered, with the first complete one-armed ancient wooden anchor ever discovered. After several years of preservation work, the ship was reassembled and put on display at the Hecht Museum in Haifa.
In addition to the historical clues the two ships have offered, they have also raised questions.
The Caesarea harbor, built by King Herod around 25–13 BC, flourished and prospered during ancient times due to vibrant commerce with other port cities.
Located just a few kilometers to the north of Caesarea, Ma’agen Michael is now Israel’s largest Kibbutz. However, at the time that the ships were left on the shore there was no city, or even a camp at that location, leaving the circumstances surrounding the abandonment of the ships a mystery.
“It’s not a typical place where ships used to come and anchor,” says Cohen. “Maybe they navigated wrong?”
Uri Shapira is an i24news television reporter
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